Driest Desert

On an urban oasis amidst the only lifeless region on earth and more.

A Most Spectacular Road

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 1, 2011

Our first impression of a place often depends on our arrival direction. Few first sights compare to La Paz and Mount Illimani as seen while arriving from the Andean High Plateau, or Rio de Janeiro from the air during the sunrise or sunset. Venice from the mainland train and Hong Kong from its harbor are equally unforgettable. Thus, this is of crucial importance while planning a trip.

Considering the War of the Pacific (1879-1884, Chile against Bolivia and Peru) certain issues are hot topics in this dry desert area, I apologize to all sides involved and assure them my comments are done exclusively out of travel considerations. The point is that arriving to Iquique (and Arica) from Chile or Peru is not recommended. The way to see them is from above; descending from the Andean High Plateau through what possibly is one of the most spectacular roads on earth, dropping four kilometers from the plateau to the adjacent ocean in a few hours through the world’s driest desert.

Buses to Arica and Iquique leave in Bolivia from La Paz, Oruro and Cochabamba, making it easy to make this delightful detour while traveling in this unearthly part of South America. The main point to keep in mind is to take a day bus in order to enjoy the views; moreover, night buses are preferred by Bolivian traders, who pack them up until the last available inch. Regardless the port of depart, all buses reach the Tambo Quemado border cross between Bolivia and Chile. The spectacular border is divided there in two different areas: the Chilean and Bolivian outposts are some ten kilometers from each other (I already mentioned local tensions), and each one provides different views.

The Bolivian pass is called Paso Portezuelo de Tambo Quemado; near it is Bolivia’s highest mountain, a silent volcano called Sajama that rises up 6550m above sea level, not far from the America’s highest mountain. The deep blue water of the adjacent lake practically touches the immigrations’ building; friendly birds allow the travelers to take colorful pictures while waiting to the stamp. Beyond the lake, there are two beautiful volcanoes of an almost perfect conical shape that are called Nevados de Payachata; occasionally, they smoke. The Chilean side name is Chungara, which is the name of the lake. The cross is at 4844m above the sea level; travelers not acclimatized to this altitude may feel dizziness. Yet, despite the x-ray check on the Chilean side, the stay there is short, thus the altitude is of no special worry. A point to keep in mind is that no fresh products are allowed to pass between the countries; fresh salads are better left behind.

After the cross is over, a dramatic descent through the driest desert on earth begins. A very arid landscape surrounds the vehicle; occasional llamas and cactuses fight for every drop of moisture. Looking at that would make a fish thirsty. One hundred and fifty zigzagged-kilometers after, the town of Putre is reached. It is well worth visiting the place since it retained its colonial features, including an adobe church, Iglesia de Putre, dating back to 1670. The international bus does not stop here; if wishing to explore this place the best is taking a local bus from Arica’s terminal.

The way from La Paz to Arica – the first leg of this trip - longs about eight hours, and then there are another four hours to Iquique. Despite existing direct buses to Iquique, the best is splitting the way in Arica; the town more than justifies a stop of a few hours. The reason for my comment at the beginning becomes now clear. Highway Number One, which crosses most of the Chilean coast, reaches up only to Iquique, thus the travel between Arica and Iquique is done through road number five. This is an inland road away from the ocean; it passes through the ultimate desert, not even succulents grow there. After enjoying spectacular views of the driest desert on earth – it receives no rain and is the only place on earth void of life signs – the bus actually bypasses Iquique and descends into the city from a dramatic cliff, providing an unforgettable view of an urban oasis amidst the very definition of death.

For those disliking bus rides, it is possible also to reach Iquique by plane from Lima, Arequipa and Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Within these two towns, moving around is easy. Arica is small; walking around the main attractions is possible and recommended. Iquique is also relatively small, but destinations beyond the downtown area are better reached by public transport. The best way of moving around are the "colectivos" ("trufis" in Bolivia), shared taxis that travel around the town in fixed trajectories and feature three tariffs (south, center and north areas); ask the driver for destinations served and the tariff before boarding. Regular taxis can be found at the entrances of the Zofri Area, Mall Las Américas and the airport. The safest way to move around – as in Bolivia – is with radiotaxis; these can be ordered from the hotels’ reception desks.

Driest Desert on Earth

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 1, 2011

I’ve seen a lot of deserts in my life. My country features several types of them: rocky and sandy, flat and undulated and even a powdery one. I’ve seen frozen deserts covered with snow in China and even a surprising mini-desert in the tropics caused by deforestation in northern Cambodia. I crossed the South American Chaco, the high altitude deserts of New Mexico and its low altitude neighbors in Arizona and California; yet, none of them was even close to the complete desolation I have seen at the Atacama Desert.

Invariably, the first sight of a desert is shocking, at least to lovers of greenery: emptiness and desolation, faded earthly colors, and a worryingly void of greens and vibrant flowers. Human activities are scarce and definitely foreign to the surroundings; all of them bear clear signs of being strenuous and temporary operations. A second sight often reveals shy signs of life; shrubs and lizards, oversized succulents, lichen and tiny flowers. That is true until you reach the Atacama Desert. No matter how much do you search for life, it isn’t there. Tests similar to those performed in Mars, failed to detect any signs of life; the place is sterile. Even Antarctica and the Everest show life. What has created this truly unearthly landscape? At the desert’s eastern side, the Andes Mountains block moisture of arriving; several parallel layers of high mountains make it impenetrable no matter how much moisture the air from the South American tropics brought. Moreover, it specific location next to the cold Humboldt Current and the Pacific’s Anticyclone keeps the adjacent ocean’s water colder than it should be at this latitude. The combination creates an almost waterless enclosure of land. Yet, this desert is so large (over 100 thousand square kilometers) that exceptions are to be expected. "Camanchaca" is the local name of a marine fog that reaches some of the desert coastal zones; it provides enough humidity to sustain lichens, some algae, and small succulents. However, above the level reached by this fog, the dryness is absolute. The yearly rain average in some parts of the desert is 0; near Antofagasta things get wet with an astounding 1 mm (roughly 1/25 of an inch) of rain per year. Studies show that vast areas of this desert have not seen rain for longer time than the entire registered human history. That leads to another characteristic of the area: it is void of clouds: clear skies are the rule during the whole year.

One of the joys of trekking in the Himalayas is seeing the gradual changes in nature. As you climb, trees are replaced by shrubs and later those disappear in favor of low grasses. Later on, everything except lichen is gone. Cows are replaced by hybrid cow-yaks and after that, only yaks are left. Yet, always – except for the highest peaks – you can see some type of life, regardless how strange it may look. In Atacama, there is nothing, absolute emptiness. It is as close as we can get to the moon without leaving our planet. Even the terrain is almost void of variance, showing salt flats, sand and timeless lava flows. After a short time there, they all look alike melting into an awkward ochre color.

This reflects also on the human settlements in the area. Most of them are along the coast and were created only due to the exceptional natural resources of the area: saltpeter, guano and silver from nearby Potosi. An exception is San Pedro de Atacama, a village place on an oasis next to the Chilean-Bolivian border; if traveling in the Potosi area, it is possible to cross the border there. This is the only area of the desert inhabited since before the Inca Empire; old forts called "pucaras" can still be seen. Small scale copper mining still is practiced in different parts of the dessert; nitrate mining was abandoned altogether during the 20th century, leading to the creation of several mining ghost towns. After they lost their past importance, the towns survive nowadays only due to international trade and tourism. Guano is out, Chinese memory cards are in.

Atacama Desert
Pacific Coast, Northern Chile
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Interlude: Chilean E-Spanish

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 1, 2011

I have reviewed several South American countries until now. Invariably, on the paper they all seem similar. They use Spanish or Portuguese as main languages, where ruthlessly colonized by Spain or Portugal, eradicated native cultures, gained independence early in the 19th century and since then experienced incredible amounts and types of inner violence. All these are true, but once on the ground things look different.

Food is heavily influenced by location. Altitude, adjacent water sources, ground fertility and weather patterns dictate the available ingredients in a given area. Traditional native dishes can be found even today in Bolivia, Paraguay and other cultural pockets. However, nowhere the differences are as obvious as with the language used. I wrote extensively on Bolivian Spanish, due to its Aymara and Quechua influences (especially on the Andean High Plateau area). Unlike Bolivia, Chile is completely dominated by Spanish. I saw an Aymara school in Arica, but all denizens spoke exclusively Spanish among themselves. All signs were in Spanish, including the one at the Aymara school. This area of modern Chile was never part of the Inca Empire; Aymara and Quechua speakers arrived here during colonial times. That means Chilean Spanish is something else; but what is it?

A characteristic of Spanish is its theoretical flatness: no tones, no most emphasized word, and equal length vowels. Reality is different. In every zone an underlying sing-song is applied to the spoken language. Vowels are then elongated or shortened, modulating the sound of the local dialect. In certain areas, some consonants are skipped. Moreover, several Spanish consonants are ill defined and changed wildly. The "ll" and the "y" feature at least three different sounds each, while the pronunciation chosen depends exclusively on cultural parameters. Pronounce "yo" (I) and your Spanish background would be pretty much defined.

The first time I visited Chile, I could barely speak Spanish, though I understood the Bolivian and Argentinean dialects. Bolivian Spanish is slow due to its use of Aymara and Quechua long vowels, making it easier to understand. The first Chilean I met was in the Bolivian bus leading me downwards to Arica. He was the conductor and was asking me for my ticket; the request was simple, yet I was lost and we moved to English. While at the Chilean immigrations booth I just guessed out what I was being told; the sounds uttered by the guards were meaningless. Luckily, there were no surprises there. Once in Arica it took me a while to begin recognizing a language I thought to know properly.

The problems were various. First, a final "s" was invariably skipped; unluckily that’s the Spanish plural. Everything became singular. Then, when two consonants appeared together (not a very common occurrence in this vowels-oriented language), one of them was shortened or obliterated. Syllables were not separated; the pause between words was in the range of milliseconds (or was it microseconds?). The underlying sing-song was very different than in other places. Foreign words beginning with an "s" and another consonant following it received extra vowels; "stadium" became … "estadiun," because no Spanish word ends with an "m" the letter is automatically transformed into an "n." Non-existing consonants in Spanish were accommodated: "busch" would be pronounced "boos-ch." The result was almost unintelligible.

For those of us speaking languages with semi-vowels, another difficulty exists; a semivowel would almost invariably be added to words ending with an "s." I always need to verify if the speaker said "dos" (2) or "doce" (12), "tres" (3) or "trece" (13). The semivowel is seen by locals as an insignificant puff of air.

More often than not, Spanish is uttered very quickly, and this is a very surprising characteristic. Usually there is a correlation between the way a language is used and the surrounding culture. Compare the rapid English of New York with the languid one in New Mexico. Spanish doesn’t behave like that. You can see the most lethargic people almost falling asleep while standing next to their equally stagnant llama. Did they grow up there? It is difficult to imagine them moving at all. You approach them and ask for directions. Incredibly, the mouth of the answerer becomes then independent from that immobile body. The unstoppable – and apparent random – shower of long vowels that follows must make some sense to the speaker, but even the llama looks with proud wonder at that prodigious orchestra of sounds. E-spanish.

Sunken Emerald

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 1, 2011

Iquique (pronounced Ee-kee-keh) is a commercial hub with a big port serving northern Chile and Bolivia; its beaches have a reputation for being Chile’s best. If arriving from the Andean High Plateau – as suggested in the first entry of this journal – the traveler may be worried about the weather by the ocean, especially during the winter; however, the area’s weather is mild during the entire year. Moreover, also the wild sun radiation on the plateau disappears once the seashore is reached. Eventually, the traveler would be left at Iquique’s bus terminal. It is a bit far from the town’s central plaza, but walking there is definitely possible and enjoyable. It is also the first priority, since the best attractions, restaurants and hotels are in that area.

Before colonial times this area was populated by the Chango people; fishermen that occupied the desert’s coasts. In Bolivia, the word "chango" is nowadays used similarly to the English "kid." The modern town was founded by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, as part of the Viceroyalty of Peru; by the end of the 19th century it passed to Chile as part of the War of the Pacific. All the modern population is descendant of migrants from other parts of Chile or from other countries, mainly from South America, China and parts of Europe. During its early days the city was a commercial center related to the local riches: saltpeter, guano, copper and silver. In July 1835, the Beagle stopped here; one of its passengers – Charles Darwin – wasn’t very impressed with the sights he found. Sadly, little is left from this period; earthquakes devastated the city in 1868 and 1877; then a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit it in 2005.

Sadly, its dramatic part in the War of the Pacific is not the only contact of this town with South American history. In December 1907 the Chilean army opened fire on miners killing over two thousand civilians; unsurprisingly, the usually ubiquitous military commemorating statues in South America, do not exist in this case.

Port and La Esmeralda Buoy

On May 21, 1879, took place the Battle of Iquique; nowadays it is celebrated as the Navy Day. The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar sank then La Esmeralda, a Chilean wooden corvette. A buoy marks the place of the event; it can be visited by tours leaving from Muelle Prat, next to the naval building in the port, though probably this is a tour better appreciated by patriotic Chileans. This violent event also gave name to several places in town; the commander of La Esmeralda was Arturo Prat; the central plaza is named after him.

Nearby is the Ex Aduana (the former customs building), which is the oldest building in town; it goes back just to 1871, as earlier buildings were destroyed by earthquakes. Back then it was still the Peruvian customs center, as the war was still in the future. Part of it was adapted into the Museo Naval, which displays items belonging to the La Esmeralda.

The port area, especially the zone next to the bus terminal, north from the center, hosts many seafood restaurants, although few of their owners were inspired enough to place them in clear sight of the amazing ocean nearby. A sunset dinner here would probably be the best event of the visit.


Iquique’s southern coast offers some beautiful beaches, especially Playa Cavancha – considered the town’s best beach - which is fifteen minutes by foot from the plaza through the stylish Baquedano Street. This is the only walking street in town and unites Plaza Prat with the seashore. Its buildings show the riches accumulated by the saltpeter tycoons.

A theme park was created along the beaches – all the way from Cavancha to Brava – it displays sculptures related to local life and culture as well as various shows, the sea-lions is probably the best in this category. Luckily, it seems Chileans approach their beaches only at given times of the year: in a fine day you may find an astounding beach with a tempered, pleasant ocean, completely empty!


Iquique features also ZOFRI (Zona Franca de Iquique), a duty free commercial center next to the port which attracts denizens searching for the last gadgets developed in the Far East and travelers in South America willing to fill up their depleted backpacks with some decent items. Beyond warehouses and shopping malls – the main one being Mall ZOFRI - the area offers also restaurants and various financial services. Any city-bus traveling north leads to Zofri.

However shopping centers had spread out of the ZOFRI; well worth a note is the Ripley (it has nothing to do with the museums’ Ripley) at 550, Vivar Street. At the near Tarapaca Street there are additional shopping malls. It is a good idea to look at the merchandise while at downtown – in a more relaxed ambience – and then going to the duty free ZOFRI only for the purchase act itself.

Much of the daily commercial activity takes place in open markets, known here as "ferias;" several are arranged in the vicinity of Vivar Street. Craftsmanship from the area and nearby countries can be easily located at Galería de Artesanos; Paseo Baquedano corner Gorostiaga.

Plaza Prat

A typical Spaniard plaza, Plaza Prat, is the cultural center of the town. It is located not far from the port. Its main sights are the Torre Reloj, a stylish wooden clocktower built in neogothic style, the neoclassic Teatro Municipal, the Croatian Club and the Centro Español, which looks like a Moroccan structure.

Ultimate Outpost

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 1, 2011

Even if deciding not to adopt the approach proposed in this journal while visiting Iquique, most travelers would find themselves passing through Arica, unless making a round trip to Iquique from central Chile. Not stopping at Arica - or just stopping at the terminus for a short time - is possible but not recommended. After having made a long way to one of the truly unique spots on this planet, it is worth stopping and taking a good look. Arica is small - much smaller than its neighbor to the south - but it still has good sights of the titanic encounter between the driest desert on earth and the largest ocean, good beaches and an eerie feeling of being on an isolated military outpost. Given the history of the area, the obvious military presence and the fact most of what would be the downtown area is simply closed to the public by a large and important port the feeling is about right and adds another unusual touch to the visit.

Before colonial times, Arica was populated by the Chinchorro culture, which was notorious for its mummies; those date eight-thousand years back and predate the Egyptian ones. Technically they are not mummies, since all the muscles and soft tissues were removed from the bodies and then vegetal fibers were used to fill the gap between the bones and the skin. They can be watched in the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa, twelve kilometers away from downtown Arica. It is open everyday between 10am and 6pm. Similar mummies can be found all over the Andean High Plateau. The Spaniards arrived at the area in 1535 and found it populated by the Ariacas. Subsequently, the city was founded in 1541 and given a simplified version of that name: Arica. Quickly, it became the main exit port for the silver mined in the nearby Potosi. Due to the malaria, the control of the route was done from nearby Putre, halfway up to the plateau. If wanting to visit Putre, local buses depart from Arica’s bus terminus, please note that the international buses to Bolivia do not stop there.

Another point of historical interest is that the silver trade attracted some of the worse pirates in history. In 1579 Francis Drake attacked Arica, afterwards Spilbergen arrived in 1615 and Watlin in 1681. Two hundred years after Arica’s foundation, the silver trade moved to Buenos Aires and the city declined sharply. Instead, a trade in saltpeter and guano developed; the workers in those were mainly black slaves that were resistant to the malaria. There is no need to fear malaria nowadays; its eradication took place between 1925 and 1953. Sadly, the lucrative saltpeter trade led to the War of the Pacific in 1879. Areas belonging to Peru and Bolivia were conquered then by Chile. The Treaty of 1929 legally transferred Arica from Peru to Chile, ironically at the same time the trade on saltpeter ceased being lucrative due to the development of chemically produced saltpeter. As a consequence of this war Bolivia was left a landlocked country.

As if these weren’t enough tragedies, earthquakes in 1604, 1615, 1681, 1868 and 1877 destroyed much of the city; the last two affected heavily also Iquique. The one in 1868 lead to the construction of two structures by Gustav Eiffel himself; he designed the metal structure of the Church of St. Marcus, which survived the 1877 earthquake, and the old customs building.

Yet, no building dominates the town's skyline; the last belongs to El Morro, a distinctive hill delimiting the town to the south. It rises sharply from the seashore, looking like a brownish giant muffin blocking the way southwards. It was here where the decisive fight between the Peruvians and the Chileans was fought during the War of the Pacific. Nowadays it became a symbol of peace and a "Cristo de la Concordia" statue was erected there.

A beautiful promenade leads from downtown to the beaches in the outskirts, from the Morro southwards. The Pacific Ocean offers here a glorious and unspoiled look; the sandy beach is wide, clean and long offering thus a perfect place for relaxing and enjoying the oceanic views. Surprisingly enough, it seems the citizens limit their visits to the beach to their vacations, thus the coast is pleasantly empty even in seasons warm enough to enter the water.


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